Anniversary of a Blog

The Toronto Star reports on the 10th anniversary of blogging with a message to those who believe that blogging will replace traditional journalism and to those who think amateurism is ruining culture (summon the whipping boy, Andrew Keen!). Their message: “Both are wrong.”

Writers David Eaves and Taylor Owen argue that the same forces that drive people to traditional and authoritative sources drive blog readers. And here is the best answer to the overpopulation argument against blogs that I’ve heard in ages: “Because blogs are cheaper to maintain they will always be numerous, but this makes them neither unique nor more likely to be read regularly.”

It’s refreshing to see an article that isn’t so polarized–as much of the “noble amateurs” versus “neo-Luddites” debate has become. You can’t take either of these gentlemen at face value, of course. They are both journalists and get paid for their work; they have an interest in the journalism establishment’s survival, yet I believe them.

I’m in a unique position to understand that blogging will not replace journalism. I came to blogging first and journalism second. With no journalism training I landed a job as a reporter in Bozeman, and since then I have enrolled myself in a self-taught journalism course. I’ve learned that there is far more to journalism than there is to blogging–the biggest difference being the amount of original research that goes into each writing session. Journalists conduct interviews and consult public records. Bloggers, in general, read news reports and write from those; and there is nothing wrong with that if we remember that a blog is a Web log, a chronicle of the links we have traveled in cyberspace.

I have also learned the value of a name. When I call someone and tell them who I work for, it lends me some of that newspaper’s credibility. The name gets my foot in the door. If I called the same source in the city manager’s office and told them I wrote for a blog that nobody but a few specific people in a very specified field of interest have heard of, how far will I get with that interview?

No, blogging will not replace journalism. But it will act as a valuable supplement to journalism and as a more anonymous public forum for discussing the news. Will the print world feel the pinch of lost customers? Of course, and they already have. That doesn’t signal an end of traditional journalism as much as it tells me that we’ve got to rethink our traditions and adapt them to fit the new reality of the world.

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Potter Squatters

This is old news by now, since many of you have already purchased the book and read it three times as of this writing, but Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released for sale last week, and I spent a good portion of that evening traveling between the city’s bookstores, meeting with the people who were waiting in line to get first crack at the book.

The thing to note first of all is that Harry Potter fans love big events. No one I spoke to during my three hour tour was unhappy to be waiting in line. It was ritual. It was part of the expected pattern of events that 10 years of show-time released have conditioned a generation of readers to expect. One wonders just how they will get excited about books in the future if they don’t have national release parties to go to.

The next thing to note is that Potter fans love to dress up. It’s partly a condition of the party atmosphere and partly the nature of the source material, but it’s like a second Halloween for many fans, ages 6 to 20 (at least). And nevermind the anti-Potter arguments put forth by people who say he is anti-Christian (an argument best saved for another forum), these people were having a lot of fun at their mid-July holiday.

The last thing I’ll note is that parents and adults love Harry Potter too. Of the parents I spoke to, many of them make Harry Potter reading a part of their shared family time. The children and parents will gather around to hear the next installment of the saga, waiting together on bated breath to learn what will happen to Harry & Co. next. And adults are just as excited as the kids, with their own ideas of how the story ends that, in conversation, sound little different than the children’s ideas.

Final observation on that note: it is odd to hear an adult speak a rational sentence that contains the words “horcruxes,” “muggles,” and “Severus Snape.”

Reading Andrew Keen

I’m about three-quarters of the way through Andrew Keen’s diatribe The Cult of the Amateur and felt like I had to get a few thoughts into the ether before I finish.

I came into Keen’s book with the knowledge that I wasn’t going to like what he had to say about the Web, especially Web 2.0. I could tell that from his subtitle, “How today’s Internet is killing our culture.” I don’t agree, but I thought it would be healthy for me to read a book by someone who I don’t agree with to understand the opposition.

I wish Keen had done the same.

Throughout the 166 pages of ranting I have read so far, I have found very little in the way of an “academic argument” in the book. For all the value he places on the editorial process and traditional scholarship, Keen offers very little in the way of a structured argument.

Let me digress. In teaching composition to college freshmen, one of the things I stress is examining and considering one’s opposition in your writing. By taking on the best argument your opponents can offer, you strengthen your prose and your own points; basic rhetorical strategy.

Keen doesn’t do this. He is so hell-bent on making his point about the foulness of Web 2.0 and the modern Internet that he ignores evidence that doesn’t jive with his point, cites only sources that support his view, and looks at only the examples that support his argument. No counter-examples or -argument. Only a tear against electronic media and collaborative authorship.

His research, that he actually uses and cites, is top-notch. I wonder if most of it came from the Web, though, considering its breadth, though few of the bibliography entries are cited as Web sources… That aside, it’s hard to disagree with the numbers he presents. It’s the numbers he omits that get me wondering.

Apart from that, Keen quotes others out of context, misinterprets quotations, puts words in his sources’ mouths, dramatizes unnecessarily and ineffectively, and, for all his reverence of traditional scholarship and writing, comes across more like an angry blogger with an agenda than a vetted academic researcher. Objectivity and fairness disappear in favor of extremism and name-calling.

More on Keen to come…

King me!

The world of checkers is being turned upside-down by claims that Chinook, a computer program, is invincible.

Okay, maybe the world isn’t upside-down–I have no way to find out because I don’t know where the checker’s world is, and I’m not going to spend time looking for it online. Still, you have to admit that the assertion that a computer program is unbeatable is something, especially when it’s published in Science (abstract only).

Reminds me of that movie Wargames. “Would you like to play a game?”

The Media Divide

A Washington Post opinion piece today defines a gap between two kinds of Web junkies: the entertainment fan and the news addict.

The article’s author, Markus Prior, worries that news-addicts will have only “exclusive exposure to outlets all biased in the same direction.” News broadcasts no longer have to be fair and balanced because they cater to a specialized audience. Outlets like Fox News provide their audiences with only the news they want to hear–essentially creating red news and blue news (for those who believe in the bifurcated political rainbow).

Meanwhile, the entertainment fans, Prior notes, “never consciously weigh the pleasure of constant entertainment against the cost of leaving politics to news junkies and politicians.” The business of politics is left to a biased few, while the remainder of Americans avoid or ignore the news and politics at all costs. And as Prior notes, politicians pay more attention to voters.

Blogger Chuck Tryon at the Chutry Experiment criticizes Prior’s article, speculating that there isn’t all that wide of a gap between entertainment and news. Tryon also picks on Prior’s unstated assertion that media choice is voluntary. As Tryon points out, “Network TV shows, Hollywood films, and other media alternatives have the capacity to attract our attention in ways that are more difficult for “news” shows that often rely on relatively limited budgets.”

More evidence of a fracturing society and a fracturing Web? Hmm. Which is the root cause, I wonder? Has an increasingly fragmented media culture caused our opinions to become more chaotic and less unified, or have our human tendencies merely been reflected in the media?

For some reason, this all reminds me of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and Kipling’s “Conundrum of the Workshops”.